When Nuala can’t sleep, she crawls into bed with me and resumes her babyhood activity of shoving her fingers into my armpits and picking at my skin. Just picking. Pick, pick, picking until she falls asleep, sometimes hours later. It’s like Chinese water torture. It doesn’t get to you at first, but around the half hour mark, you are ready to lose your shit.
When Joe can’t sleep, he lies beside me reciting his latest nightmare. “I was in the belly of a dead Blue whale and a king cobra was trying to eat my junk. I called and called and called you and you didn’t come, Mommy. You didn’t come!”
So I’m not only a crap mother for believing him when he said he was cool watching the real and gruesome drama on Animal Planet, but I don’t even rescue him from it in his dreams. Nice.
Baby Roo, who still sleeps in a crib beside our bed, is a thrasher. And a sleep babbler. And a snorter, hummer and laugher. Trying to sleep next to her is like trying to sleep next to a drunk sorority girl.
In her sequel to Little Women, Little Men, Louisa May Alcott writes that once you become a mother, you will never truly sleep again. She was right. I sleep on a hairpin trigger. I’ve been so sleep-deprived I’ve answered the door to the UPS guy with my boob hanging out after nursing. I’ve been so sleep-deprived I couldn’t remember how to spell “why,” I could only picture a sock-puppet. I’ve been so sleep-deprived I’ve had people ask me if I’m drunk at 10 am. I wish.
After almost six years of sleep deprivation, combined with never letting myself off the hook – not once, not for a missed workout or succumbing to an unhealthy food choice or forgetting it was PJ day at school – my parents staged an intervention. A gentle, subtle, ingenious intervention. They were going to keep the kids for a while.
They didn’t tell me this, of course. They took the younger kids for the day so I could work while the older one was in school. Around 2 pm, I got a call from my Dad saying he wanted to pick up my son, and would I mind if he took him over to his place for dinner with the girls.
A few hours later, my Mom called. “Listen, they are having a good time. Why don’t we just keep them overnight? I promise I will get Joe to bed in time for school. I promise he won’t be late.”
I lay in bed that night, eyes open, listening to the deadweight hum of the house.
“Go to sleep,” my husband said. I thought he’d drifted off hours ago.
“I miss them,” I say.
“So do I, but staying awake won’t make you miss them less. Sleep. Now.”
At some point, I fell asleep.
The rest of the week followed suit. Every day I assumed the kids would be coming home, and every day I got a call asking if they could stay just one more night. I spoke with them on the phone, and they were ecstatic. Thrilled to be having family room camp outs and eating an ice cream and marshmallow based diet.
Every day I reluctantly acquiesced to their absence. Not because I didn’t think I needed the break. I didn’t think I deserved it.
I had done nothing, nothing, to earn a break. I had been short with them. I had let them watch TV just so I could get stuff done. I’d cleaned the floor when they wanted me to play tea party. I was too busy editing a client’s manuscript to do dinosaur flash cards.
I didn’t deserve them. And I certainly did not deserve a break from them until I learned to be a better Mom. I compared. So-and-so doesn’t have help from her parents. I shouldn’t need it, either. I’m weak. I’m pathetic. My kids know I’m a fraud and are going to grow up hating me.
That’s what I thought then.
By the end of the week, I wasn’t ready to have them back. It took me five days to see that the only way I could be a better Mom is if I took advantage of the time I’d been given to help myself. And just because I realized it didn’t mean that I’d come to terms with it. I still haven’t.
I’ll state something obvious: every mother deserves a break.
Now I’ll say something seemingly at odds with what I just claimed: I am not every mother. In my short time away from my kids, I took stock of why I felt I needed to be with them and performing at 100% for my children. Why did I think that was normal, or healthy? I realized that it’s because Moms who are always “on” and are constantly engaged with their kids constantly talk about it. At the playground, on social media, in playgroups, at birthday parties. There is a type of mother who wants you to think that her life is all crafts and baking and hockey practice. That her life is happily all crafts and baking and hockey practice.
I sound like a cynical bitch.
Hell, maybe they are happy. I’m certainly not.
When my friends found out I was going to have a baby, their first response was shock. Her? Baby? Hell has frozen over.
I was the last person on earth they expected to move into the Mommy ghetto. I was a writer. I drank too much. I quoted poetry to cops who stopped me for a speeding ticket. I listened to The Vinyl Cafe while doing yoga because I could not just let my mind be empty and I regularly wrote on my walls if inspiration struck and I couldn’t readily find paper. I’m supposed to tell my kids NOT to write on the walls? I’m supposed to raise adjusted members of society?
I can’t blame my friends for their disbelief.
I was – no, I am – a comfortably whacked out woman. Three kids later, that hasn’t changed, and during my reprieve from the dailyness of family life, that part of me, like a salamander’s tail, grew back, and when it did, I began to fear that I’d never be able to marry it with the traditional role of mother.
And then it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, I don’t have to. My kids are loved, and they are loved in my own, quirky, particular way, but it is whole nevertheless.
I’m learning not to engage in discussions that will make my mothering feel undermined or worthless. No, I don’t want to take my kids to an indoor water park. I did it once and spent hours standing knee-deep in tepid water holding the baby and trying to track down the older two, all to the mind-numbing background music of screaming children and endlessly rushing water. As someone with a very noisy, messy mind, it was my own version of hell.
No, I don’t have to abandon cleaning the oven or putting away laundry because my kids want me to build them a fort. Yes, I understand they will only be young once, and it is during this time of extreme mental sponginess that I would like to impart a bit of wisdom to my children: things in life need to get done, unpleasant and tedious as they are. Mommy is doing those things now. When I am finished, I will happily build you your fort. And guess what, I may even play in it with you and rustle up a kick-ass picnic because I won’t be suffocated by the thought of the leaning tower of laundry. Be patient. I am not here solely for your amusement. I am here to love you and raise you to be respectful, decent, self-fulfilling individuals, so go entertain yourself, or start sorting socks.
All this is still new to me. I’m often still distracted by what I think I should be doing, which usually involves me being dishonest about who I actually am. Still, recognition of these tensions is the first step to addressing the problem.
The evening my kids were scheduled to come home, I may have overreacted. Or mis-reacted. Instead of happily going to pick them up, I locked myself in my bedroom with a pint glass of red wine and Michael Ondaajte’s collection of poems, The Cinnamon Peeler. I was going to squeeze every last bit of total self-indulgence into whatever kid-free time I had left.
In less than an hour, I heard the front door open and the older two loudly arguing over what movie they were going to watch that night.
Here we go again, I thought, throwing back what was left of my wine. I stood up, looked at myself in the mirror, brushed some hair back out of my face and took a deep breath. How the mighty have fallen.
As soon as I opened the bedroom door, I heard the kids clamoring to meet me in the hallway.
“MOMMY!” they screamed breathlessly, throwing themselves around my legs and laughing. I crouched down to take them all into my arms, inhaling the familiar scent of my mother’s perfume lingering on their clothes and in their hair.
“Babies!” I said, smiling and crying and wishing I could reabsorb them all into my body. I thought, here we go again.
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